Momentum, Markowitz, and Solving Rank-Deficient Covariance Matrices — The Constrained Critical Line Algorithm

This post will feature the differences in the implementation of my constrained critical line algorithm with that of Dr. Clarence Kwan’s. The constrained critical line algorithm is a form of gradient descent that incorporates elements of momentum. My implementation includes a volatility-targeting binary search algorithm.

First off, rather than try and explain the algorithm piece by piece, I’ll defer to Dr. Clarence Kwan’s paper and excel spreadsheet, from where I obtained my original implementation. Since that paper and excel spreadsheet explains the functionality of the algorithm, I won’t repeat that process here. Essentially, the constrained critical line algorithm incorporates its lambda constraints into the structure of the covariance matrix itself. This innovation actually allows the algorithm to invert previously rank-deficient matrices.

Now, while Markowitz mean-variance optimization may be a bit of old news for some, the ability to use a short lookback for momentum with monthly data has allowed me and my two coauthors (Dr. Wouter Keller, who came up with flexible and elastic asset allocation, and Adam Butler, of GestaltU) to perform a backtest on a century’s worth of assets, with more than 30 assets in the backtest, despite using only a 12-month formation period. That paper can be found here.

Let’s look at the code for the function.

CCLA <- function(covMat, retForecast, maxIter = 1000, 
                 verbose = FALSE, scale = 252, 
                 weightLimit = .7, volThresh = .1) {
  if(length(retForecast) > length(unique(retForecast))) {
    sequentialNoise <- seq(1:length(retForecast)) * 1e-12
    retForecast <- retForecast + sequentialNoise
  #initialize original out/in/up status
  if(length(weightLimit) == 1) {
    weightLimit <- rep(weightLimit, ncol(covMat))
  rankForecast <- length(retForecast) - rank(retForecast) + 1
  remainingWeight <- 1 #have 100% of weight to allocate
  upStatus <- inStatus <- rep(0, ncol(covMat))
  i <- 1
  while(remainingWeight > 0) {
    securityLimit <- weightLimit[rankForecast == i]
    if(securityLimit < remainingWeight) {
      upStatus[rankForecast == i] <- 1 #if we can't invest all remaining weight into the security
      remainingWeight <- remainingWeight - securityLimit
    } else {
      inStatus[rankForecast == i] <- 1
      remainingWeight <- 0
    i <- i + 1
  #initial matrices (W, H, K, identity, negative identity)
  covMat <- as.matrix(covMat)
  retForecast <- as.numeric(retForecast)
  init_W <- cbind(2*covMat, rep(-1, ncol(covMat)))
  init_W <- rbind(init_W, c(rep(1, ncol(covMat)), 0))
  H_vec <- c(rep(0, ncol(covMat)), 1)
  K_vec <- c(retForecast, 0)
  negIdentity <- -1*diag(ncol(init_W))
  identity <- diag(ncol(init_W))
  matrixDim <- nrow(init_W)
  weightLimMat <- matrix(rep(weightLimit, matrixDim), ncol=ncol(covMat), byrow=TRUE)
  #out status is simply what isn't in or up
  outStatus <- 1 - inStatus - upStatus
  #initialize expected volatility/count/turning points data structure
  expVol <- Inf
  lambda <- 100
  count <- 0
  turningPoints <- list()
  while(lambda > 0 & count < maxIter) {
    #old lambda and old expected volatility for use with numerical algorithms
    oldLambda <- lambda
    oldVol <- expVol
    count <- count + 1
    #compute W, A, B
    inMat <- matrix(rep(c(inStatus, 1), matrixDim), nrow = matrixDim, byrow = TRUE)
    upMat <- matrix(rep(c(upStatus, 0), matrixDim), nrow = matrixDim, byrow = TRUE)
    outMat <- matrix(rep(c(outStatus, 0), matrixDim), nrow = matrixDim, byrow = TRUE)
    W <- inMat * init_W + upMat * identity + outMat * negIdentity
    inv_W <- solve(W)
    modified_H <- H_vec - rowSums(weightLimMat* upMat[,-matrixDim] * init_W[,-matrixDim])
    A_vec <- inv_W %*% modified_H
    B_vec <- inv_W %*% K_vec
    #remove the last elements from A and B vectors
    truncA <- A_vec[-length(A_vec)]
    truncB <- B_vec[-length(B_vec)]
    #compute in Ratio (aka Ratio(1) in Kwan.xls)
    inRatio <- rep(0, ncol(covMat))
    inRatio[truncB > 0] <- -truncA[truncB > 0]/truncB[truncB > 0]
    #compute up Ratio (aka Ratio(2) in Kwan.xls)
    upRatio <- rep(0, ncol(covMat))
    upRatioIndices <- which(inStatus==TRUE & truncB < 0)
    if(length(upRatioIndices) > 0) {
      upRatio[upRatioIndices] <- (weightLimit[upRatioIndices] - truncA[upRatioIndices]) / truncB[upRatioIndices]
    #find lambda -- max of up and in ratios
    maxInRatio <- max(inRatio)
    maxUpRatio <- max(upRatio)
    lambda <- max(maxInRatio, maxUpRatio)
    #compute new weights
    wts <- inStatus*(truncA + truncB * lambda) + upStatus * weightLimit + outStatus * 0
    #compute expected return and new expected volatility
    expRet <- t(retForecast) %*% wts
    expVol <- sqrt(wts %*% covMat %*% wts) * sqrt(scale)
    #create turning point data row and append it to turning points
    turningPoint <- cbind(count, expRet, lambda, expVol, t(wts))
    colnames(turningPoint) <- c("CP", "Exp. Ret.", "Lambda", "Exp. Vol.", colnames(covMat))
    turningPoints[[count]] <- turningPoint
    #binary search for volatility threshold -- if the first iteration is lower than the threshold,
    #then immediately return, otherwise perform the binary search until convergence of lambda
    if(oldVol == Inf & expVol < volThresh) {
      turningPoints <-, turningPoints)
      threshWts <- tail(turningPoints, 1)
      return(list(turningPoints, threshWts))
    } else if(oldVol > volThresh & expVol < volThresh) {
      upLambda <- oldLambda
      dnLambda <- lambda
      meanLambda <- (upLambda + dnLambda)/2
      while(upLambda - dnLambda > .00001) {
        #compute mean lambda and recompute weights, expected return, and expected vol
        meanLambda <- (upLambda + dnLambda)/2
        wts <- inStatus*(truncA + truncB * meanLambda) + upStatus * weightLimit + outStatus * 0
        expRet <- t(retForecast) %*% wts
        expVol <- sqrt(wts %*% covMat %*% wts) * sqrt(scale)
        #if new expected vol is less than threshold, mean becomes lower bound
        #otherwise, it becomes the upper bound, and loop repeats
        if(expVol < volThresh) {
          dnLambda <- meanLambda
        } else {
          upLambda <- meanLambda
      #once the binary search completes, return those weights, and the corner points
      #computed until the binary search. The corner points aren't used anywhere, but they're there.
      threshWts <- cbind(count, expRet, meanLambda, expVol, t(wts))
      colnames(turningPoint) <- colnames(threshWts) <- c("CP", "Exp. Ret.", "Lambda", "Exp. Vol.", colnames(covMat))
      turningPoints[[count]] <- turningPoint
      turningPoints <-, turningPoints)
      return(list(turningPoints, threshWts))
    #this is only run for the corner points during which binary search doesn't take place
    #change status of security that has new lambda
    if(maxInRatio > maxUpRatio) {
      inStatus[inRatio == maxInRatio] <- 1 - inStatus[inRatio == maxInRatio]
      upStatus[inRatio == maxInRatio] <- 0
    } else {
      upStatus[upRatio == maxUpRatio] <- 1 - upStatus[upRatio == maxUpRatio]
      inStatus[upRatio == maxUpRatio] <- 0
    outStatus <- 1 - inStatus - upStatus
  #we only get here if the volatility threshold isn't reached
  #can actually happen if set sufficiently low
  turningPoints <-, turningPoints)
  threshWts <- tail(turningPoints, 1)
  return(list(turningPoints, threshWts))

Essentially, the algorithm can be divided into three parts:

The first part is the initialization, which does the following:

It creates three status vectors: in, up, and out. The up vector denotes which securities are at their weight constraint cap, the in status are securities that are not at their weight cap, and the out status are securities that receive no weighting on that iteration of the algorithm.

The rest of the algorithm essentially does the following:

It takes a gradient descent approach by changing the status of the security that minimizes lambda, which by extension minimizes the volatility at the local point. As long as lambda is greater than zero, the algorithm continues to iterate. Letting the algorithm run until convergence effectively provides the volatility-minimization portfolio on the efficient frontier.

However, one change that Dr. Keller and I made to it is the functionality of volatility targeting, allowing the algorithm to stop between iterations. As the SSRN paper shows, a higher volatility threshold, over the long run (the *VERY* long run) will deliver higher returns.

In any case, the algorithm takes into account several main arguments:

A return forecast, a covariance matrix, a volatility threshold, and weight limits, which can be either one number that will result in a uniform weight limit, or a per-security weight limit. Another argument is scale, which is 252 for days, 12 for months, and so on. Lastly, there is a volatility threshold component, which allows the user to modify how aggressive or conservative the strategy can be.

In any case, to demonstrate this function, let’s run a backtest. The idea in this case will come from a recent article published by Frank Grossmann from SeekingAlpha, in which he obtained a 20% CAGR but with a 36% max drawdown.

So here’s the backtest:

symbols <- c("AFK", "ASHR", "ECH", "EGPT",
             "EIDO", "EIRL", "EIS", "ENZL",
             "EPHE", "EPI", "EPOL", "EPU",
             "EWA", "EWC", "EWD", "EWG",
             "EWH", "EWI", "EWJ", "EWK",
             "EWL", "EWM", "EWN", "EWO",
             "EWP", "EWQ", "EWS", "EWT",
             "EWU", "EWW", "EWY", "EWZ",
             "EZA", "FM", "FRN", "FXI",
             "GAF", "GULF", "GREK", "GXG",
             "IDX", "MCHI", "MES", "NORW",
             "QQQ", "RSX", "THD", "TUR",
             "VNM", "TLT"

getSymbols(symbols, from = "2003-01-01")

prices <- list()
entryRets <- list()
for(i in 1:length(symbols)) {
  prices[[i]] <- Ad(get(symbols[i]))
prices <-, prices)
colnames(prices) <- gsub("\\.[A-z]*", "", colnames(prices))

returns <- Return.calculate(prices)
returns <- returns[-1,]

sumIsNa <- function(col) {

appendZeroes <- function(selected, originalSetNames) {
  zeroes <- rep(0, length(originalSetNames) - length(selected))
  names(zeroes) <- originalSetNames[!originalSetNames %in% names(selected)]
  all <- c(selected, zeroes)
  all <- all[originalSetNames]

computeStats <- function(rets) {
  stats <- rbind(table.AnnualizedReturns(rets), maxDrawdown(rets), CalmarRatio(rets))
  return(round(stats, 3))

CLAAbacktest <- function(returns, lookback = 3, volThresh = .1, assetCaps = .5, tltCap = 1,
                         returnWeights = FALSE, useTMF = FALSE) {
  if(useTMF) {
    returns$TLT <- returns$TLT * 3
  ep <- endpoints(returns, on = "months")
  weights <- list()
  for(i in 2:(length(ep) - lookback)) {
    retSubset <- returns[(ep[i]+1):ep[i+lookback],]
    retNAs <- apply(retSubset, 2, sumIsNa)
    validRets <- retSubset[, retNAs==0]
    retForecast <- Return.cumulative(validRets)
    covRets <- cov(validRets)
    weightLims <- rep(assetCaps, ncol(covRets))
    weightLims[colnames(covRets)=="TLT"] <- tltCap
    weight <- CCLA(covMat = covRets, retForecast = retForecast, weightLimit = weightLims, volThresh = volThresh)
    weight <- weight[[2]][,5:ncol(weight[[2]])]
    weight <- appendZeroes(selected = weight, colnames(retSubset))
    weight <- xts(t(weight),
    weights[[i]] <- weight
  weights <-, weights)
  stratRets <- Return.portfolio(R = returns, weights = weights)
  if(returnWeights) {
    return(list(weights, stratRets))

In essence, we take the returns over a specified monthly lookback period, specify a volatility threshold, specify asset caps, specify the bond asset cap, and whether or not we wish to use TLT or TMF (a 3x leveraged variant, which just multiplies all returns of TLT by 3, for simplicity). The output of the CCLA (Constrained Critical Line Algorithm) is a list that contains the corner points, and the volatility threshold corner point which contains the corner point number, expected return, expected volatility, and the lambda value. So, we want the fifth element onward of the second element of the list.

Here are some results:

config1 <- CLAAbacktest(returns = returns)
config2 <- CLAAbacktest(returns = returns, useTMF = TRUE)
config3 <- CLAAbacktest(returns = returns, lookback = 4)
config4 <- CLAAbacktest(returns = returns, lookback = 2, useTMF = TRUE)

comparison <- na.omit(cbind(config1, config2, config3, config4))
colnames(comparison) <- c("Default", "TMF instead of TLT", "Lookback 4", "Lookback 2 and TMF")

With the following statistics:

> computeStats(comparison)
                          Default TMF instead of TLT Lookback 4 Lookback 2 and TMF
Annualized Return           0.137              0.146      0.133              0.138
Annualized Std Dev          0.126              0.146      0.125              0.150
Annualized Sharpe (Rf=0%)   1.081              1.000      1.064              0.919
Worst Drawdown              0.219              0.344      0.186              0.357
Calmar Ratio                0.625              0.424      0.714              0.386

The variants that use TMF instead of TLT suffer far worse drawdowns. Not much of a hedge, apparently.

Here’s the equity curve:

Taking the 4 month lookback configuration (strongest Calmar), we’ll play around with the volatility setting.

Here’s the backtest:

config5 <- CLAAbacktest(returns = returns, lookback = 4, volThresh = .15)
config6 <- CLAAbacktest(returns = returns, lookback = 4, volThresh = .2)

comparison2 <- na.omit(cbind(config3, config5, config6))
colnames(comparison2) <- c("Vol10", "Vol15", "Vol20")

With the results:

> computeStats(comparison2)
                          Vol10 Vol15 Vol20
Annualized Return         0.133 0.153 0.180
Annualized Std Dev        0.125 0.173 0.204
Annualized Sharpe (Rf=0%) 1.064 0.886 0.882
Worst Drawdown            0.186 0.212 0.273
Calmar Ratio              0.714 0.721 0.661

In this case, more risk, more reward, lower risk/reward ratios as you push the volatility threshold. So for once, the volatility puzzle doesn’t rear its head, and higher risk indeed does translate to higher returns (at the cost of everything else, though).

Here’s the equity curve.

Lastly, let’s try toggling the asset cap limits with the vol threshold back at 10.

config7 <- CLAAbacktest(returns = returns, lookback = 4, assetCaps = .1)
config8 <- CLAAbacktest(returns = returns, lookback = 4, assetCaps = .25)
config9 <- CLAAbacktest(returns = returns, lookback = 4, assetCaps = 1/3)
config10 <- CLAAbacktest(returns = returns, lookback = 4, assetCaps = 1)

comparison3 <- na.omit(cbind(config7, config8, config9, config3, config10))
colnames(comparison3) <- c("Cap10", "Cap25", "Cap33", "Cap50", "Uncapped")

With the resulting statistics:

> computeStats(comparison3)
                          Cap10 Cap25 Cap33 Cap50 Uncapped
Annualized Return         0.124 0.122 0.127 0.133    0.134
Annualized Std Dev        0.118 0.122 0.123 0.125    0.126
Annualized Sharpe (Rf=0%) 1.055 1.002 1.025 1.064    1.070
Worst Drawdown            0.161 0.185 0.186 0.186    0.186
Calmar Ratio              0.771 0.662 0.680 0.714    0.721

Essentially, in this case, there was very little actual change from simply tweaking weight limits. Here’s an equity curve:

To conclude, while not exactly achieving the same aggregate returns or Sharpe ratio that the SeekingAlpha article did, it did highlight a probable cause of its major drawdown, and also demonstrated the levers of how to apply the constrained critical line algorithm, the mechanics of which are detailed in the papers linked to earlier.

Thanks for reading.

11 thoughts on “Momentum, Markowitz, and Solving Rank-Deficient Covariance Matrices — The Constrained Critical Line Algorithm

  1. Pingback: Quantocracy's Daily Wrap for 06/05/2015 | Quantocracy

  2. Hello

    I am new to R but am in the wealth mgmt business. Thanks for the interesting post.

    Question: perhaps it is in there, but how is rebalancing treated?

    Also, how does model handle vehicles that have a recent inception date like TMF?

  3. Hi Ilya,

    Congratulations, I know this is always what you wanted. All the best and let’s keep in touch.

    Josh Wong
    +65 6850 7773

  4. Hi Ilya,

    I tried to replicate the results using your script, but for some reason got different results with e.g. considerably higher max drawdowns. Any idea of a potential pitfall that might have caused this?

    Note: I also used data only up until 05.29.15

    Thanks for the interest post


    • Hi Mattias,

      I get the same exact results as the blog post when I copy and paste my code, just keeping the data to 2015-05-29.

      Drawdowns for default/TMF vs. TLT/4 month lookback/2 month lookback and TLT are 21.9%, 34.4%, 18.6%, and 35.7%, respectively, same as the blog post.

      If you’re just copying and pasting my code, you should get identical results. Be sure your libraries are on their most current iteration.


  5. Will comment to an old post, but haven’t caught up to your speed yet in replication and learning. As I am fairly new to R, how do access weights of these strategies? I can see “weights” in CLAAbacktestfunction, but I guess it does not return them?

      • maybe one more as you are online: end of Weights have a date 2/29/2016 so as yday and they are monthly series. Are those weights used for march 2016? I have had problems with backtest formulas in R (portfolio analytics), as I’m not 100% sure, if they are real backtests, or are the weights calculated end of the period.

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